Since first making waves as corrupt cop Shane Vendrell on The Shield, Walton Goggins has added a number of remarkably complex roles to his resume, a list that reveals he's a rare actor with an unnatural ability to sink his teeth into nearly any character and completely own it, mold it and morph it into something worthy of respect and awe, even if the character he's portraying isn't necessarily worthy of admiration.
This July, Goggins will add another colorful character to his list when he appears opposite Danny McBride in HBO's new comedy Vice Principals (premiering Sunday, July 17 at 10:30/9:30c) in a role that only furthers the working theory that casting Goggins in a project will instantly increase its likability and quality. After all, it worked for The Shield, Justified, Sons of Anarchy and even Quentin Tarantino.
On The Shield, FX's award-winning cop drama, Goggins immediately stood out as Shane, the second in command to Michael Chiklis' crooked Vic Mackey. Shane was a tragic character who was often hard to love, but through Goggins' performance Shane had a dimensionality about him so that even when relationships broke down, even as he made heartbreaking decisions and the world crumbled at his feet, it was still hard to write him off.
Following The Shield, Goggins brought a spark of humanity and depth to Justified outlaw Boyd Crowder, a role he actually turned down before eventually agreeing to appear in the pilot on the condition that he wouldn't be portraying another Southern stereotype. The character was supposed to die from a gunshot wound in the show's pilot, but test audiences were so charmed by Boyd that series creator Graham Yost brought him back, first as a recurring character and then as a series regular beginning with the show's incredible second season.
In Goggins' hands, Boyd became a charismatic but deadly criminal whose eloquence was second only to his intelligence. His shared history and complicated relationship with U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) eventually became the lifeblood of the Kentucky-set western, and the many reinventions of Boyd, each one revealing a new layer of the man who would do anything to escape the viselike grip of Harlan, made him a fan-favorite character and Goggins more than just an actor whose face was recognizable but name wasn't.
Vice Principals is Goggins' first major TV role since Justified signed off more than a year ago, and it's not what one might expect from the man who in the interim also stole the spotlight from co-stars Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell as the deceitfully cunning Sheriff Chris Mannix in the Quentin Tarantino film The Hateful Eight.
In the series, a new half-hour comedy from Eastbound & Down's McBride and Jody Hill, Goggins plays Lee Russell, a bow tie-wearing, pattern-loving sycophant and one of two vice principals (the other being McBride's Neal Gamby) fighting hard to be named principal of a South Carolina high school after the current boss (Bill Murray) steps down.
McBride is, with no disrespect intended, playing a role he's played before, as there's a lot of the egotistical Kenny Powers in Neal Gamby. The character and the jokes work just fine, but the familiar set up is also what allows Goggins to stand out even more, not just from the rest of the cast, but for the range he again displays in a single performance.
Initially, the role looks to be a departure for the actor, for gone are the obvious moral complexities which made Boyd Crowder a charming but undeniably appealing villain and gone is the lyrical eloquence with which he spoke that made his character as dangerous with words as he was with an explosive. In their place are vulgar insults, immaturity and sass, which paint both Russell and McBride's Gamby as not much better than the teenagers they're responsible for governing.
However, it's eventually revealed that like The Shield's Shane, Justified's Boyd, and even Sons of Anarchy's Venus Van Dam, the transgender woman Goggins played on FX's biker drama, there's more than meets the eye to Russell. Behind the paisley-patterned curtain lies a diabolical and deranged man whose only real ambition in life is to be a high school principal, and who will do anything to make it happen.
Like Boyd, Russell knows how to manipulate those around him, as evidenced when, following the appointment of new principal Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), Russell puts on a show to get in her good graces while simultaneously making nefarious plans to sabotage and usurp her. And it's when the mask slips and the gloves come off that Goggins unsurprisingly shines.
All in all, Vice Principals is a good but not necessarily great comedy, but it's worth watching even if you're not a fan of McBride's typical comedic style because it's not a coincidence that of the six episodes screened for critics, the episode in which Goggins' character hardly factors at all is one of the weakest, while the episodes in which he's able to let loose are some of the best.
While we can quibble over whether or not this is a rare comedic role for Goggins' — both The Shield and Justified were plenty funny despite being dramas — there's one thing for certain: The unscrupulous Lee Russell is just further proof that Goggins makes every single project he's part of inherently better. Here's hoping everyone else soon realizes this.
Vice Principals premieres Sunday, July 17 at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.